Born 2 May 1905, Vulcan, Michigan; died 18 July 1969, Glendale, California
Also wrote under: Jo Valentine
Daughter of Frank Hall and Clara Pascoe Armstrong; married Jack Lewi, 1928
Having begun as poet (several poems appeared in the New Yorker) and playwright (two plays ran briefly on Broadway), Charlotte Armstrong soon turned to writing suspense novels, her first three being conventional detective stories. The detective, MacDougal ("Mac") Duff is a former history professor who has discovered he prefers real-life puzzles to academic ones. In Lay On, Mac Duff! (1942), and in The Case of the Weird Sisters (1943), he is the conventional outsider who solves other people's mysteries and then moves on. In The Innocent Flower (1945), however, he becomes involved with a divorcee and her six children; with his commitment to them, Armstrong's use of him ends.
A number of Armstrong's stories are inverted mysteries in which the identity of the criminal is revealed early. In other novels, suspense is created by a race against time. Sometimes, terror is evoked when an innocent person is trapped in an enclosed space with several people, at least one of whom poses a threat. The Case of the Weird Sisters, a Mac Duff mystery, falls into this group, as does The Albatross (1957), in which, ironically, the threatening characters are invited into the home of the victims. Other variants are The Girl with a Secret (1959), The Witch's House (1963), and The Turret Room (1965).
Another novel of particular interest is A Little Less Than Kind (1963), the Hamlet story reset in contemporary California. Using the Shakespearean situation, Armstrong examines motivations and relationships, and although her dénouement is quite different from Shakespeare's, it develops logically from the situation and characters. A Dram of Poison (1956), despite its serious central situation, is a comic novel, with an unlikely set of characters uniting in a common purpose and discovering in the process much that is admirable in each other.
Along with family relationships, Armstrong was especially interested in children and old people. A recurring motif in her work is that of an innocent child thought to be responsible for a death. Concern over the impact of the accusation on the child leads others to seek out the truth, and an adult murderer is unmasked (The Innocent Flower, 1945, and The Mark of the Hand, 1963).
Another recurrent theme in Armstrong's novels is that of our responsibility toward one another. Characters are shown involving themselves in others' problems because they know that if they do not help, no one else will. The title character in The One-Faced Girl (1963) defines "good guys" as those who "don't want other people hurt. They feel it, themselves. So if any one is in pain or trouble, then they not only want to help, they are obliged. They just about have to." This concept underlies much of Armstrong's fiction; combined with her skill in handling complex plots and her interest in motivation and character, it helps to account for the consistent popularity her work has had.
Armstrong's novels have attracted filmmakers of three nations. The Case of the Three Weird Sisters was filmed by British National Films in 1948. Warner Brothers made The Unsuspected (1946) in 1947, and Twentieth Century-Fox filmed Mischief (1950) in 1952, under the title Don't Bother to Knock. The latter is noteworthy for Marilyn Monroe's portrayal of a deranged babysitter. More recently, French writer-director Claude Chabrol based his La Rupture (1970) on Armstrong's The Balloon Man (1968).
Ring Around Elizabeth, a Comedy in Three Acts (1942). The Chocolate Cobweb (1948). The Black-Eyed Stranger (1951). Catch-As-Catch-Can (1952). The Trouble in Thor (1953). The Better to Eat You (1954). Walk Out on Death (1954). The Dream Walker (1955). Murder's Nest (1955). Alibi for Murder (1956). Duo: The Girl with a Secret and Incident at a Corner (1959). The Seventeen Widows of Sans Souci (1959). Something Blue (1959). The Mark of the Hand and Then Came Two Women (1963). Dream of Fair Woman (1966). The Gift Shop (1966). I See You (1966). Lemon in the Basket (1967). Seven Seats to the Moon (1969). The Protégé (1970). The Charlotte Armstrong Reader (ed.A. Cromie, 1970). The Charlotte Armstrong Treasury (ed. A. Cromie, 1972). The Charlotte Armstrong Festival (ed. A. Cromie, 1975).
Cromie, A., preface to The Charlotte Armstrong Festival (1975). Cromie, A., preface to The Charlotte Armstrong Reader (1970). Cromie, A., preface to The Charlotte Armstrong Treasury (1972).
NYHTB (13 Sept. 1959). NYTBR (25 June 1950, 15 July 1951, 28 March 1954, 16 Jan. 1955, 5 Aug. 1956, 10 Nov. 1957, 12 April 1959, 10 Nov. 1963, 11 April 1965, 7 May 1967, 29 Oct. 1967).
—MARY JEAN DEMARR